In one of the most illustrious careers of the last half-century, Tom Stoppard has seen 37 of his plays produced and nine of his screenplays become films.
With that more-than-four-to-one ratio, we’re within our rights to assume that Stoppard is far more of A Man of the Theatre than A Man of the Movies.
So with this theatrical bias, you’d think that when Marc Norman’s screenplay for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was brought to him for a makeover, he’d be inclined to say, “You know, this really should be a play” – IF indeed he thought it should have been a play.
Lee Hall did.
So in 2014, more than a decade after Stoppard, Norman and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE all received Oscars, Hall’s adaptation opened in London to a decent if unexceptional nine-month run. Now The Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada has mounted it, befitting a theater that used to sport the word “Shakespeare” in its name.
What’s on stage is certainly acceptable, although the production could use a sexier Shakespeare than Luke Humphrey (who’s otherwise fine). Happily, Shannon Taylor is far more effective and up to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar-winning performance as Viola de Lesseps, a/k/a Thomas Kent, the Lass Who Would Be a Lad in order to act in a play in those men-only times.
But those little moments that make the film so memorable – the shot of even MEN crying as the tragedy of ROMEO AND JULIET moves to its inexorable end – just aren’t there.
To be fair, Stratford theatergoers were often laughing so hard you’d swear they were at a first-rate production of NOISES OFF. And yet, the entire two-hour and three-minute Oscar-winning film can be had on You Tube for all of $2.99. Tickets for Stratford’s production range from $25 to $143.75. Granted, Americans save a little by way of the exchange rate between their country and Canada, but still, that superior film remains quite a bargain.
Hall’s version starts very differently. As Shakespeare writes, a group of people watch him at work. Actually, they’re voices in his head urging him to “Throw in a dog” into his next effort, for a dog has not yet “played the palace.” Shakespeare obliges; then on second thought, he excises the mutt from the script while we hear “Out, out, damned Spot.”
All this is very cute, to be sure, but not on the level that Stoppard and/or Norman devised and wrote.
As in the film, Christopher Marlowe (a dashing Saamer Usmani) gives Shakespeare much of the plot of ROMEO AND JULIET down to the name Mercutio. The screenwriters might well have been making a quick and sly reference to those theorists who believe that Marlowe was indeed Shakespeare under an assumed name.
However, Hall brings that possibility to mind in another way, for when Shakespeare is romancing Viola, Marlowe stays in the background and provides The Bard-to-Be with dialogue, much as Cyrano de Bergerac cues Christian in another classic play.
Hall has more plans for Marlowe. He has Viola’s Nurse (the amusing Karen Robinson) see what she believes to be a homosexual act between the two playwrights. It isn’t, but we remember it later when Marlowe sees Shakespeare in drag (don’t ask) and says “Is there something you haven’t told me?”
The crux of the drama remains that Shakespeare and Viola aren’t to be, because she must obey her father’s choice of husband. Although Paltrow adopted a mystified tone when she told Lord Wessex “But I do not love you!” Taylor says it with terrific defiance.
Rylan Wilkie does well by Wessex, showing a man who hopes that as long as he doesn’t ever acknowledge that Viola has no feelings for him, she may well tire of her indifference and come to love him after all.
One of Hall’s arguable improvements involves John Webster, who would eventually write THE WHITE DEVIL and THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, two still-esteemed if macabre plays. In the film he’s a tween who loves to play with mice and already seems quite unbalanced for his tender years. Webster spills the beans that Viola is pretending to be a man so that she can appear on stage in her lover’s play. Webster’s motivation in the film is nothing more than malevolence. Hall instead has Webster a member of the company who wants to play Romeo or at least Tybalt — but is denied.
Yes, many an actor who doesn’t get the part he wants takes his revenge by sabotaging the production in one way or another. Just ask anyone who works for Music Theatre International or Samuel French; every day uncast actors infamously squeal on the director who snubbed them: “He made a change in the script and the show MUST be shut down RIGHT NOW!”
Here’s betting that Webster would have hardly been the first actor to derail a production; some ancient Greek probably was. However, director Declan Donnellan could have better staged the scene in which Webster sees Viola’s breasts and realizes that those aren’t just moobs.
Historians may carp with Hall, saying that Webster is believed to have been born around 1580 and Shakespeare is assumed to have written R&J between 1591 and 1595. That time-frame would make Webster much too young to play either character. But SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE doesn’t pretend to be a history let alone a documentary, so we can go along for the ride.
Hall not only makes much more of the Shakespeare-Kent kiss, but also the first orgasm that he gives Viola. (It’s merely an off-stage noise, but one that Meg Ryan would be hard-pressed to replicate.)
The film has Viola horrified after she hears a barfly mention that Shakespeare has a wife back at Stratford-on-Avon; Hall ups the ante by mentioning that Will has a couple of twins back home, too.
When Nurse hears the setting of Shakespeare’s new play, she remembers his comedy about Two Gentlemen and cries out “Verona again?!?!” Yeah, everyone’s a critic, and when an author seems to be repeating himself — be it John Irving with his penchant for bears or Jerry Herman writing a “Hello, Dolly!”-like number for MAME – there will be those who reproach.
So there are some nice new nuggets here, but much of the dialogue is business-as-usual from the film. Of course Hall retained the marvelous exchange between Philip Henslowe, the theater owner who’s always assuring investor Hugh Fennyman that they’re not headed for bankruptcy and theatrical disgrace. “Strangely enough, it all turns out well,” Henslowe insists and when Fennyman still challenges with “How?” Henslowe’s answer is beloved by all who have ever worked on a play: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
Here’s another question. Why did Lee Hall bother to turn SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE into a stage play?
I don’t know. It’s a mystery.